As NASA copes with the significant cut it received in FY2024, experts on the civil space budget are warning that FY2025 could be even worse.  Caps imposed by the Fiscal Responsibility Act remain in effect in FY2025 and the budget “tricks” used to lessen the pain in FY2024 will not be available this time. On top of that, NASA will be competing with other national needs like policing and preparations for the next census. One NASA program that still appears to be in comparatively good shape is Artemis.

Despite widespread, bipartisan support for NASA across Capitol Hill, NASA’s FY2024 budget was cut two percent below its FY2023 funding level because of spending caps set by the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

Those caps remain in effect for FY2025, with total non-defense discretionary spending allowed to rise by only one percent. If approved, NASA’s $25.4 billion request for FY2025 would merely restore the agency to its FY2023 level with no adjustment for inflation. That’s a massive change from a year ago when President Biden requested a 7.1 percent increase for the agency.

Jean Toal Eisen speaking at an AIA budget webinar, March 27, 2024. Screengrab.

During an Aerospace Industries Association webinar this week, Jean Toal Eisen cautioned it may be difficult to get even that much. Now with the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Toal Eisen spent many years on the staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee. She explained the bumpy road ahead by setting the bill that funds NASA in its broader context.

NASA is part of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill. As the name implies, it funds the Department of Commerce, including NOAA, the Department of Justice, as well as science agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation.

CJS is one of 12 appropriations subcommittees. Each subcommittee is allocated a fixed amount of money to spend and they divide it up among the departments and agencies within their jurisdiction. The same group that decides how much money NASA, NOAA and NSF get, also determines how much is available for community policing, the federal prison system, and in the Department of Commerce, for example, conducting the census every 10 years.

NASA wasn’t the only agency to suffer cuts in FY2024. Total funding in the CJS bill was down four percent, Toal Eisen said, and FY2025 may be tougher. “Some of the tricks that they used to get [total funding] as high as that are now not available in FY25.” “They’re also looking forward to a 2030 census. Looking at crime rising and people’s perception of crime rising doesn’t just affect the fact that they’re going to have to keep more people in prison” but the need to fund law enforcement grants to “hire cops on the street” and “anti-drug programs.”

First, though, NASA needs to cope with the funding drop in FY2024. Congress finished NASA’s appropriations on March 8, more than five months into FY2024. The final amount was less than they were getting under the Continuing Resolution that kept them at their FY2023 level, which is quite rare.  Now NASA must submit to Congress an operating plan showing exactly how they plan to spend what they got —  two percent less than FY2023 — with only about six months left in the fiscal year.

Casey Dreier speaking at an AIA budget webinar, March 27, 2024. Screengrab.

Meanwhile a decision is pending on the fate of the Mars Sample Return mission, an expensive program to bring back samples of Mars to Earth.  The FY2025 budget request doesn’t even propose an amount of funding for MSR. The letters “TBD” are in the funding columns instead of a dollar number.

The Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier said he’s reviewed 60 years of NASA budgets and never seen that before. Toal Eisen exclaimed Congress “doesn’t get to enact ‘TBD’.”

Dreier stressed that NASA’s science program bore the brunt of the cuts and the planetary science division, which includes MSR, in particular.

The Science Mission Directorate is experiencing a “slow bleed” of resources and he foresees no new flagship missions — the most technically challenging and expensive, but also most likely to produce paradigm-changing results — under the 5-year scenario laid out in NASA’s FY2025 budget request. MSR would be a flagship mission.

“Where you spend your money says your actual priorities” and clearly that is the Artemis program, Dreier asserted. He praised the coalition behind Artemis for holding together not just now, but during the transition from President Trump to President Biden.

“The coalition that has formed behind Artemis has now successfully cleared two major hurdles that no other return-to-the-Moon program for humans has done. One was the presidential transition, which it cleared extraordinarily successfully…. And then now we have this first real test of budget. NASA’s shrinking. What happens to Artemis? Artemis grows. Not as much as they wanted … but much closer to the request.” — Casey Dreier

What that means for MSR is problematic. Unless NASA requests and receives a separate supplemental for MSR, he views proceeding with it as unrealistic.

Toal Eisen has a gloomy forecast for all of the next five years. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CHIPS and Science Act both will require an infusion of funds in coming years, even if not in FY2025. For now, she stresses the importance of the space community sticking together.

“In my experience, having a circular firing squad is never the answer. Saying ‘look what my brother has on his plate’ is never the way to win more cookies from mom, right? You need to say — ‘you know what, these are really good cookies. Everybody deserves more cookies.’” — Jean Toal Eisen

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